A New York Angels-backed pilot is saving the agricultural industry a predicted $10bn by monitoring the health of animals by a sensor-enabled smart pill.
A US defence pilot project monitoring dairy cow’s vital signs via a smart pill will save the agricultural industry an estimated $10bn in mortality and morbidity costs. The 4” x 1.5” pill - essentially multi-purpose environmental monitor - is swallowed and remains in the animal’s stomach where it measures a variety of parameters that may affect its health such as breathing, heart rate, temperature and PH levels in the stomach.
The technology owes its success in part to the unique design of the bovine digestion system. Vital Herd has exploited the cow’s famous alkaline fourth stomach called the remun, of which the pill drops to the bottom and is unable to pass through. The pill remains here and transmits data back to the farmer, vet or nutritionist for analysis, creating a baseline profile on each individual animal. “We’d love to exploit the race-horse environment which would be very lucrative, but race horses only have one stomach, so the pill would be regurgitated or simply pass through their digestive system,” said Brian Walsh, the CEO of Vital Herd at the Internet of Things conference PTCLive today.
But Vital Herd is far from the first to monitor the health of cows from the inside. “Plenty of companies have sensors that monitor one parameter, such as heat, from inside the animal,” he says. “People have been putting magnets in the stomachs of cattle for years to anchor the barbed wire and nails that cows consume on a regular basis. What makes our technology different is that we measure a variety of parameters, temperature, heart rate and rumen PH levels.”
Unlike their competitors, Vital Herd’s pill monitors via patented acoustic sonar rather than electronically, which can help diagnose sickness such as lameness and mastitis. The smart-farming technology uses an Internet of Things-led M2M application called Thingworx which provides a platform for various connected devices to talk to each other and collect data, via PLM solution provider PTC.
The key benefit to farmers is the technology’s scalability, which can be applied to five animals or 500. The current pilot project is monitoring five cows, but Walsh says data could be mined from a whole herd of cattle which can often reach 1,000 animals.
Its other benefit is remote monitoring. Farms are often located in remote areas, far from vets or nutritionists. Much like remote monitoring in a factory environment, nutritionists or vets can predict the health of a herd before fatality, meaning they can reach an animal before an illness leads to death. “We estimate farmers will achieve a 4x return on their investment per year,” says Walsh.
This technology could transform the food security industry by preventing bad meat reaching the marketplace - and eventually our food - as contaminated meat could be traced directly back to a specific farmer and cow. Reduction in sickness levels could also allay recent concerns regarding the effect of antibiotics delivered over the lifetime of the cow on meat.
The technology has other applications outside of agriculture. Essentially an acoustic fermenter monitor, the pill could be used in biofuel production or wastewater industries which would benefit from fermenting monitoring.
Increased dairy production in recent years has produced higher milk yields to meet demand, but it also causes animals to become more susceptible to sickness, produces a narrower fertility window in heifers and contributes extensively to global warming. “The benefits are sustainability-related as well as health related,” says Walsh. “A cow that is processing its food efficiently produces less methane, which means less contribution to climate change. We believe something has to happen, something has to change.”